Review: A Catalogue of Everything in the Worldby Amanda Kimmerly • 07.07.2011
Nebraska, to me, is a place people go for two reasons: to hide from the police in a corn field, or to receive an MFA in creative writing. As a city girl, long stretches of agriculture, though beautiful, puzzle me. The census population, with 89.6 percent white, 4 percent black, with the next most popular being American Indian at .9 percent, puzzles me. The fact that it is ranked eleventh in “most livable” states–that we even have a system for deciding what’s most livable–you guessed it, puzzles me.
Which is exactly why it felt imperative to pick up A Catalogue of Everything in the World: Nebraska Stories, by Yelizaveta P. Renfro, winner of the St. Lawrence Book Award—I wanted to see the landscape through a lens in which I do understand: stories.
The book opens with the main character of “Splendid, Silent Sun” feeling slightly different. “You’ll never believe where I am,” he writes to his girlfriend back home in California. “You know, that state in the middle somewhere, just another corn-filled patch in the quilt of indistinguishable states that make up the interior. You see that farmhouse and the gently rolling fields of corn in the picture? That’s why I’m here. To find that. Not that particular house, per se, but what it stands for: that open and uncomplicated life that’s vanished in LA.”
He craves simplicity, connection, God, even patriotism—things that exist more in spirit, but could possibly be inspired by location. He is not the only character in this collection searching for such ideals. Renfro uses several techniques to describe her characters’ lives, often relying on an epistolary approach. Through letters and diary entries, we discover her characters’ secrets, desires, hopes, limitations, what they choose to actually send off or throw away, based on fear or social expectations.
The language is fresh and straightforward, a true strength in Renfro’s writing. She paints the Nebraska scene beautifully, treating it also like a character:
The sky filled with clouds. White and low, stretching for miles, a whole country of clouds. I pulled over just to take a look at them, and I took them in with my eyes like a long draught…. And suddenly there was a man walking toward me, and I saw that it was a state trooper. He asked me if there was any trouble. I said no, I’m looking at the clouds. And he just nodded as though that was the most normal thing in the world …
Even greater, apart from the letter-writing, is her actual storytelling. She has a gift of restrained suspense, using details that could suggest an obvious plot, but spinning them into a far more compelling, sometimes horrific ending. A Catalogue of Everything in the World is a quick, insightful read. We see, through these often tame, but powerful, tales, that no matter the location, racial make-up, how well you’ve mastered or defied the social construct of marriage and babies, life—even in the quilt of indistinguishable states—is never uncomplicated. But perhaps, as Renfro teaches us, with so much land and open sky, there might be some relief.